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An Alternative Treatment to Depression...

jrlewis's picture

If you were depressed, what would you do?  Talk to a friend?  Tell a therapist?  Ask a psychiatrist for medication?  Learn meditation?  Begin practicing Buddhism?

All of these are normal reasonable responses to depression.  However, there are many more potential reactions based on religion, medicine, and individual preference.  Some are better researched, cheaper, safer, more private, or more socially acceptable in a given society.  It is beyond the scope of this paper to provide a complete list of treatment options and their relative merits.  The purpose of this work is to discuss one specific alternative remedy for depression, its neurobiological and psychological mechanism of action, horseback riding. 

In order to determine treatment, it is important to know about the illness.  According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, depression is a mental illness consisting of 5 or more of the following symptoms: depressive mood, diminished pleasure in most activities, significant change in appetite or weight, insomnia or hypersomnia, psychomotor agitation or retardation, fatigue, feelings of worthlessness or guilt, diminished cognitive function or concentration or decision-making ability, suicidal ideation or recurrent thoughts of death. (1) The medical model describes depression as a mental illness resulting from a chemical imbalance in the brain. (2)

In contrast, Dr. Paul Grobstein argues that the thoughts and feelings of people experiencing depression are also valuable to the understanding and treatment of the illness. He characterizes it as an unresolved conflict between the two components of an individual’s brain, the cognitive unconscious and storyteller.  The cognitive unconscious is the portion responsible for interacting with the external world, multitasking, and making pragmatic decisions.  The storyteller element involves the concepts agency, free will, creativity, analysis and interpersonal interaction.  The storyteller is located in the neocortex, an area of the brain that is an evolutionarily recent addition, shared by humans and other mammals. (2) The result of a lack of productive communication between the cognitive unconscious and the storyteller is the symptoms of depression. 

There are a variety of conventional and alternative treatments for depression.  Currently, the best options are a combination of psychotherapy and antidepressant medications. (2)  Talk therapies include cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), interpersonal-therapy, and psychoanalysis.  Four types of medication exist: selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), tricyclics, monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs), and atypical antidepressants.  Another conventional treamtent is electroconvulsive therapy.  The alternative options include massage, meditation, St. John’s wort, religion, mystic rituals, special diets, transcranial magnetic stimulation, and hypnonsis, to name only a few. (3) All treatments incur financial costs and cause side-effects.  The choice of a particular regimen is a complex evolving personal process involving a lot of experimentation. 

As a form of exercise, horseback riding offers significant benefits to both those with mental health and mental illness.  It is particularly useful for alleviating some of the common symptoms of depression. The physical exertion it affords can help control weight and relieve anxiety and insomnia. (3) Shared interaction for mutual benefit can alter feelings of loneliness.  However, these positive features are not common to all team sports.  What is unique about horseback riding is the combination of exercise, meaningful communication, and a special sort of social interaction. 

The horse and rider relationship differs from the relationship between two humans in several significant ways.  The fundamental human-equine connection has very dissimilar properties to human interpersonal associations. Temple Grandin argues that in order to understand all animals, horses included, one must” get away from language and think in pictures, sounds, touch sensations, smells, and tastes,” (4, p123).  Horses do not relate to the world through words; they do not process information linguistically.  Therefore, when humans must communicate with horses by means of a series of nonverbal or nonlinguistic signs.  These signals are conveyed through changes in posture and movement, the physical contact between the horse and rider.  Such actions are largely unconscious behaviors on the part of the rider.  They are very similar to the deed of driving a car or riding a bicycle. 

“Body language is not confined to humans or horses; it constitutes the most common form of communication between all animate objects, “ (5, p24).  A return to this more simple style of communication allows the human cognitive unconscious to interact directly with the horse.  The cognitive unconscious is drawn onto meaningful engagement with another element.  Such interaction relieves the isolation of the cognitive unconscious and the loneliness of the individual.  It is also able to partially or temporarily replace the interaction between the cognitive unconscious and the storyteller.  There is minimal storyteller involvement required for a meaningful exchange to occur.  Horseback riding offers an opportunity to reaffirm the ability of the cognitive unconscious to communicate with others.  The therapeutic benefit is developing confidence and interest in the cognitive unconscious of individuals. 

The therapeutic potential of horseback riding has barely been explored scientifically.  A partial justification for this lack of interest are the costs, time, danger, and other logistical difficulties associated with horseback riding.  For these reasons, it is doubtful that riding will ever become a popular treatment for depression.  However, to those people already involved in equestrian activities it might be useful to consider the psychological benefits and neurobiological underpinnings of the sport.  

Works Cited

2.)    /exchange/node/2175
3.)    Solomon, A., The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression. Scribner New York: 2001
4.)    Grandin, T., Johnson, C., Animals Make Us Human: Creating the Best Life for Animals. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2009
5.)    Roberts, M., The Man Who Listens to Horses: The Story of a Real-Life Horse Whisperer. Ballantine Books New York: 1999
6.)    /exchange/courses/bio202/s09/notes
7.)    /sci_cult/evolit/s05/web2/bhahn.html


Karen Scholl's picture


EAGALA, Equine Assisted Growth And Learning Association, is an international organization that utilizes the horse-human interaction to treat and counsel an extensive list of mental health issues; at-risk teenagers, grief therapy, PTSD, depression, etc. Professionals in the mental health industry are connected with horse professionals to access this very valuable resource to improve mental health, the horse.

I'm not associated with EAGALA, but was invited as their national conference keynote speaker as an equine professional that specializes in psychology-based training for horses. Their work is tremendous with researched and measurable results.

Daniel Pevensie's picture

Alternative treatment

It is really great to know more about the alternative treatment when it comes to depression. Is there any way to keep it more effective?

Paul Grobstein's picture

horses, depression, the cognitive unconscious

"Horseback riding offers an opportunity to reaffirm the ability of the cognitive unconscious to communicate with others"

An intriguing argument in the context of therapy for depression.  Are there other ways to achieve this?